The Esports Phenomenon is Bringing New Challenges and Opportunities in Media Tech

Published on in Miscellaneous

By Jens Fischer, Signiant 

There are few current trends in media and entertainment as exciting and fast-growing as Esports (an umbrella term encompassing competitive gaming across a number of distinct games). Growing out of the humble origins of arcade tournaments, and online game play-throughs, Esports have experienced a meteoric rise recently, though tournaments have been broadcast by channels such as GIGA since the early 2000s.

Still, the growth that media organizations have witnessed in the last half-decade has been immensely impressive. In 2018, Newzoo predicted that by 2021 Esports will become a bigger industry than traditional professional athletics, and the industry will see its first $100-million-dollar media rights deal (an incredibly ambitious forecast). In a follow-up piece published in early 2019, they predict an audience of 645 million viewers by 2022.

With this evolution comes a wealth of opportunities for organizations driving growth across media technology, especially that which better enables remote production and help facilitate fast, global multi-channel distribution. This dynamic vertical combines the broadcasting opportunities of live sports and entertainment with exciting differentiating factors that demand the aforementioned capabilities. If media tech enterprises want to seize on this boom, understanding the unique nature of Esports production and distribution is important, as there are some new challenges and opportunities compare to traditional sports productions.

Esports’ Rise on the Leaderboard Explained

While gaming tournaments have been around since the 1970s, Esports as we know it bloomed in the 1990s, in the time of games such as DOOM, Unreal Tournament and Starcraft. Still, the rate at which Esports have gone from a niche hobby to a truly mainstream phenomenon in more recent years is impressive to say the least.

In a 2013 PCWorld article, writer Andrew Groen argues that the then-state of professional PC gaming could be attributed to its massive “economic rise of Asia”. While Esports had looked like a dying industry in the early 2000s, Groen suggests that the availability of free PC gaming centers and the prominence of competitive PC gaming in countries like South Korea not only helped to rescue Esports but to position it for the mass appeal it’s currently enjoying.

As it stands now, pro-gaming is a dynamic and lucrative business on nearly every continent, and shows no signs of slowing down. With a wide range of games—such as League of Legends (LoL), DOTA 2, the aforementioned Overwatch, Counter-Strike and Fortnite—competitive gaming enthusiasts can easily find a challenge that suits their individual tastes. 

With the introduction of streaming community services like Twitch, professional gaming competitions are as accessible as the largest sporting events (e.g.: The 2017 LoL semifinals had a viewership of over 80 million people!), and major brands like Mercedes Benz, Toyota, DHL, Coca-Cola, and Spotify have arranged sponsorship deals with global leagues like OWL, ESL One or IEM, while Disney XD, ESPN, and ABC have teamed up with the leagues to form broadcast partnerships. Brands are beginning to recognize Esports as one of the best ways to market to younger demographics who might otherwise be harder to reach, and it’s likely that these sponsorships will only increase in prevalence. 

Bringing Content to the Masses

Now that it’s clear that Esports is a big deal and only getting bigger, it’s essential for media technology businesses to understand what this means for them—how they fit into the emerging puzzle.

Recently, VentureBeat published the transcript of their Esports panel at the 2019 National Association of Broadcasting (NAB) convention. The wide-ranging conversation explored the nuances of broadcasting Esports competitions, and how they superficially resemble regular sports broadcasting while exhibiting some fundamental differences (more complex technology, the integration of additional workflows such as social media promotion, etc.) in the production needs. 

Matt Edelman, the chief commercial officer at Super League Gaming suggested, “If you’re interested in Esports, relatively new to Esports, it will help if you think of Esports as sports.” While this is definitely a helpful way to consider its current cultural import, from a production and broadcast standpoint there are some crucial distinctions. Certainly, some of the same technology and production equipment is used, but we see critical differentiators in production workflows. Esports events are often much longer, so that logging and metadata becoming key for post-production and social media teams. Furthermore, we have to consider the in-game workflows and the different limitations coming from the observer itself.

While traditional sports and other live events have started to adopt remote or centralized productions, Esports seems to be pushing that model further and faster, to reduce production costs and to streamline global workflows. Additionally, remote production makes central archiving easier, allows post-production and social media teams to stay at home, offers less OPEX, and ensures employees don’t have to travel unnecessarily. With this model, much of the editing, the creation of graphics, and the addition of audio effects is predominantly done at a home facility away from the venue. This means that every single one of these massive events requires solutions that can facilitate constant, complex remote workflows that depend on swift and secure file transfers to and from the venue in near real time over public and private IP networks. 

Furthermore, we see much faster adoption of cloud-based workflows in the Esports industry as well. That isn´t really a big surprise, when we consider that all the multiplayer games are living in the “cloud” already. With major publishers operating their own private WAN networks around the world, it´s just a natural step to shift more and more traditional broadcasting jobs into the cloud. A good example is Blizzard’s OWL production. Blizzard uses AWS Services to add localized graphics for different MRLs and regions and to transcode up to 37 individual video-streams.

The ability of broadcasters to handle all these components and production conditions as quickly as possible is absolutely essential for, as VentureBeat notes, the battle for eyeballs as it is far more hectic when it comes to Esports, and social media relevance demands the deployment of content ASAP. Even posting content five minutes late can make it less desirable. Additionally, while a football game or a basketball game might only be broadcast on a single channel because of exclusive media rights deals, Esports events are often broadcast on multiple channels across multiple platforms without geo-blocking. As such, being able to move content quickly, and create coverage that is dynamic and attention grabbing while under the real-time pressures of a given tournament is vital.

The final component that makes Esports such fertile ground for media technology businesses is the timeframe in which events take place. Since the debut of Twitch, gamers have been able to stream uninterrupted for days, and Esports competitions can last an entire weekend or longer. Gaming fans are used to tuning in for extended periods of time, and—whereas a basketball game might just take up a solid three hours of someone’s afternoon—Esports enthusiasts will tune in and out or even watch for an entire day. This means broadcasters are constantly moving files over a long period of time, and they demand solutions that can handle such conditions.

Gaming Around the World

Another crucial element for media technology organizations to consider is that Esports is a global phenomenon (the 2019 Newzoo article estimates that 57% of Esports enthusiasts are in the Asia-Pacific region), and the way in which fans tune in reflects that.

Whereas football fans might have a favorite local club or cricket fans a regional rivalry, Esports fans largely follow individual players. That geographic loyalty or team obsession is much less prevalent in this vertical, so even if you live in Dubai, you could be dedicatedly following a gamer based in Tokyo (though, organizations like Blizzard are trying to get fans invested in local teams through leagues like OWL). Compounding this is that, beneath the Esports umbrella, there are enthusiasts who really only care about one game of the dozens that currently drive Esports’ popularity.

Esports also serve the purpose of educating or engaging new gamers with the mechanics of games at which they might still be novices. As per Joe Lynch, the head of broadcasting at EA, and one of the members of the NAB panel, “Going by all these stats that we’ve looked at—the vast majority of the people who are watching are watching to learn…As broadcasters and storytellers, we have to spend a lot of time teaching. NFL football games don’t do that…They’ll do a little to explain the basic rules so you can enjoy the game, but they’re not going to go into the minutiae…Those are the things we have to do as storytellers, and that part is really different.”

So, what does all of this mean for distribution? Well, on a basic level, the distribution net for Esports is far wider than for any other type of sports. If I’m an Overwatch super fan, I’m going to tune into OWL competitions no matter where in the world they are, time difference be damned. And, if I can’t check out a tournament because that time difference is a factor, I’m going to want (or expect) that I can watch that tournament at a different time, at my convenience. 

Esports is Here to Stay

The bottom line is simple: Esports isn’t going anywhere. In 2018, alone, the industry saw 4.5 billion dollars in investments. 

The market, as it stands, is experiencing immense growth, and a heretofore undreamt-of level of legitimacy, and with that comes a trove of needs and opportunities that media technology businesses should be paying extremely close attention to.

Remote production and global distribution are elemental to Esports and with that comes an incredible demand for solutions that can support the workflows and omnichannel content push that defines the industry. This will continue to be a growth driver for media technology and certainly for Signiant as we provide intelligent file transfer solutions to the entire value chain including the game developers themselves, the broadcasters and online streaming services. 

Still, no matter what your niche is, it would be absolutely foolish to dismiss Esports as a fad. In the past, pro-gaming might have been seen as a temporary craze or a fringe hobby, but the last half-decade has done wonders to disprove that assumption. Dubai even announced the construction of the first Esports-exclusive stadium in the Middle East!

The Esports wave is sweeping the world and media technology organizations should be paying attention. When it comes to production and distribution, the chances are immense. 

If you’re committed to innovation, you’ll go where the innovators are.

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